Senate Democrats say they need more than just Donald Trump to win back a majority.
In an election in which the New York billionaire has been hard to escape, these Democratic candidates are vowing that their campaigns will be about more than just exploiting the weaknesses of the GOP’s new leader.
But it reflects a belief among Democrats that Trump, despite his provocations and low poll numbers, simply isn’t enough for victory. Not when many well-funded Republican candidates have worked diligently to craft their own identities with the electorate — or when they can credibly claim to be different than their unique presidential standard-bearer.
“It’s not central to my campaign against Portman,” said Ted Strickland , the Democrat’s nominee for Senate in Ohio. “It’s part of what we’re trying to convey to the people of Ohio. But it’s only part of our efforts.”
Democratic strategists acknowledge that much of their messaging has been directed at Trump, and they concede that their success in November hinges at least partially on convincing voters that GOP senators are little different than the former reality TV star .
But a flurry of new ads and releases last week demonstrate a renewed focus on their opponents’ records as much as their connection to Trump.
Strickland’s own campaign criticized the trade record of Portman. A Democratic-aligned Super PAC, Senate Majority PAC , accused Toomey of supporting a plan to privatize Social Security.
And in the wake of Sen. Marco Rubio’s decision to seek re-election , Democrats have highlighted his missed votes in the Senate, presidential ambition and opposition to abortion rights more than his support for Trump.
“Trump is obviously an important part of this election for Senate Republicans after they let him take over their party,” said Sadie Weiner, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “However, long before Trump came along, vulnerable Republicans like Kelly Ayotte , Rob Portman, and Pat Toomey were going to have a very hard time defending their own records, and we’re going to make sure they still do.”
Much has been made of how Senate Republicans should handle Trump, a search for a hard-to-find middle ground between staying loyal to their party’s best hope for the White House and a controversial politician who alienates many key voting blocs.
Senate Democrats have to strike the right balance, too.
Trump is an inviting target for Democrats, not least of which because many of the party’s strategists regard him — and his low poll numbers —as a certain electoral disaster in November. That’s especially true given the ever-deepening trend of Senate race results mirroring their presidential counterparts in mutual battlegrounds.
But this election, there’s reason to doubt the correlation between presidential and down-ballot performance.
Trump’s distinctly non-political background and unique profile could, in theory, offer Republicans like Portman and Toomey a greater opportunity to separate themselves from their party’s standard-bearer. That’s true in a way it wasn’t when Mitt Romney was the GOP’s presidential nominee, or wouldn’t have been had a fellow senator like Ted Cruz had won the GOP primary this year.
“Trump is no regular Army, and he’s not your regular Republican, and he’s so much larger than life,” said Curt Anderson, a veteran GOP strategist. “Voters will have an ability to sort of separate him from rest of their choices. I really think that’s possibly true.”
He added: “The Democrats would be making a mistake of putting all their eggs in basket and hoping he’ll drag us down.”
Many Republican senators have sought to insulate themselves from Trump, aided by millions of dollars in TV ads from groups like the Chamber of Commerce. Incumbents from Rubio to Toomey have expressed deep dissatisfaction with some of Trump’s rhetoric and positions.
And at least one, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, has withdrawn his support of Trump altogether. But it’s not always apparent that Democrats are ready to talk about more than Trump.
Kirk’s opponents have nonetheless continued to press their case against him using Trump, using press conferences, online videos, and press releases to continually link the two Republicans together.
“Trump made a series of widely documented racist and offensive comments well before Mark Kirk embraced him,” said Sean Savett, spokesman for the Illinois Democratic Party. “What's changed in the past month is Donald Trump's poll numbers have sunk even lower in Illinois.”
Democratic strategists say they’ll keep making the connection between Trump and Republicans. Seeking to get beyond Trump’s rhetoric, the party has started to make the case that they share policies that Democrats label hurtful to the middle class.
It’s just not the only case they want to make.
“We are trying to point out that Senator Portman is supporting Donald Trump for president. I think that’s relevant for the voters to know,” said Strickland. “But in terms of me thinking that’s going to be … what I need to win this election — it’s not.”